There’s something heart-warming about seeing Aston Villa do well.
They’re what journalists are contractually obliged to refer to as a ‘proper football club’, as if other, less well-supported teams were somehow illegitimate – a designation that simultaneously makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time.
Perhaps it is that the bulk of people who write about football – this columnist included – came up at a time when Villa were massive, either in their 1980s European Cup-winning era or their 1990s multiple Wembley appearance era, a time when Villa Park was home to some of the best matches around.
Granted, that didn’t always involve Villa – the 1999 FA Cup semi between Manchester United and Arsenal springs to mind – but often they did, such as the 3-2 win that United had there in 2002 or Paul Scholes’ wondergoal in 2006.
OK, there were other incidences too that didn’t involve United, but they were a little overrepresented in big games back then. How the mighty have fallen, right?
There’s a sub-stratum within the Premier League of ‘proper football clubs’ that also includes Everton, Newcastle and West Ham, as well as other intermittent participants like Nottingham Forest and Wolves (currently in) as well as Leeds, Sunderland and Leicester, who you think should generally be in but currently aren’t. This, of course, is not an exact science.
For the ‘proper’, there is generally a groundswell of support when they do well. People like to see it, especially if they are good to watch at the same time.
Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds had it, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle had it, so did Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester and any number of West Ham teams from the Carlos Tevez and Dimitri Payet editions to last year’s UEFA Conference League winners.
This incarnation of Villa under Unai Emery are certainly among the best of them.
He’s 51 games in now, and since our last column, have defeated the treble-winning champions Manchester City in game 50 and their biggest challengers, Arsenal, in game 51. Some going.
This weekend’s win was their 15th straight at Villa Park, which is fast turning into one of the great fortresses of the Premier League – which, of course, it always was at its peak.
Emery’s bunch are already right up there with the teams put out by Brian Little and John Gregory already, and the Basque boss has only been in a job for just over a year.
The style is the key. Winning is great but winning with panache matters too. People admired Little’s Villa as much for Dwight Yorke and Savo Milosevic as they did for actually winning anything. See also Gregory’s team with Juan Pablo Angel, Paul Merson and David Ginola.
Villa at the moment do lots that shouldn’t work, but somehow does. They play a kamikaze high line but don’t press high, almost baiting teams to try and get in behind.
They defend like a coiled spring and, in Leon Bailey, Moussa Diaby and Ollie Watkins, have extreme transitional pace to go immediately when the ball turns over.
Villa dominated City last midweek, allowing just two shots on goal, then beat Arsenal in a more conventional manner, hitting early then holding out.
It doesn’t work every time – they were thumped at Liverpool and Newcastle – but Emery, like the best managers, knows that you have to have a style and stick to it. His charges know exactly what they are doing and, as evidenced by their third place in the table, it’s working.
The good Son
Ange is a man who knows a thing or two about having a plan, too, and it finally came together this weekend again Newcastle.
His crucial change was the reassignment of Heung-min Son as a left-sided forward, allowing Richarlison to play through the middle, Dejan Kulusevski to play behind him and Brennan Johnson to start on the right.
Postecoglou is often characterised, especially among English media who only recently learned how to pronounce his name, as inflexible, when actually, it’s always been about consistent principles rather than dogma.
The idea is that if you set up with a roughly similar method every week, then you can move parts about far more readily depending on opponents and availability – something we saw perfectly played out against Newcastle.
Kieran Trippier has been horrendous in recent weeks and Ange shifted his most dangerous player to go right up against him, while also putting a more physical box presence into the areas where his side have sometimes struggled to finish.
Richarlison scored twice in the middle and Son laid on two before slotting a late penalty himself. The first, for Destiny Udogie, came very much at the expense of Trippier, who was left looking a bit silly.
It was assisted by this United team being absolutely knackered after a hard run of fixtures with little rotation, but the addition of extra pace and size up top forced Newcastle back on top of themselves and saw Spurs run riot.
It snapped a losing steak, but Postecoglou knows that you treat triumph and disaster as the imposters they are. Performances matter, because when they come, results tend to follow.
Klopp gets lucky
Amid the Villa resurgence, Manchester United’s horror defeat at home to Bournemouth – barely worth mentioning these days – and Chelsea’s meek surrender to Dycheball at Everton, Liverpool quietly moved to the top of the table thanks to Harvey Elliott’s late winner at Crystal Palace.
This is not Jurgen Klopp’s first rodeo, and he was quick to admit that his side had enjoyed a spot of fortune in getting the win.
“I’m a very happy manager in this moment, but I know we were lucky as well,” said the German coach.
“If you only win your really good games you have no chance to be really successful, that’s how it is, and today was not a really good game from us.”
Looking through the data, though, he might be happier. Liverpool are right in there amongst it with Arsenal and City, with Villa and Newcastle just behind.
What is perhaps most telling is how it is affecting his side at the top of the pitch.
Mo Salah, who grabbed his 200th in Liverpool colours, is second top scorer in the league (behind Erling Haaland) and is doing so sustainably, sitting second in the xG table (also to the Norwegian).
Interestingly, however, Darwin Nunez is right up there too, in sixth, but is massively underperforming, with the stats saying he should have scored five more than he has.
That should give Klopp hope that his ‘luck’ should continue, as his side are producing plenty enough to win games and could realistically expect the second prong of their forward line to start regressing to the mean.
Of all the teams in the title race, they are the least talked about but have the best chance of making an impact.
Liverpool are top, have already been to Manchester City and got a point, and are going into a period in which they get United, Arsenal and Newcastle at home, plus eminently winnable trips to Bournemouth and Burnley.
In the same period, Arsenal have to travel to Anfield and currently red hot Fulham, plus have Brighton, who have won on their last three visits to the Emirates.
City have the softest of trots in the league, but miss games to the Club World Cup and must face Everton away on their return. The four points by which they currently trail could have blown out to ten over the two matchdays they will miss, with all the pressure that might bring.